Cameron Mackintosh speaks with all the ease – but with little of the arrogance – of someone who has made a billion dollars doing what he loves.
“I was a lucky boy to be born when I was,” he says. Coming from the third richest man in the British music industry, it is perhaps the understatement of the century.
The run of stage smashes he produced in the 1980s – Cats, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon – didn’t just make Mackintosh his millions, they were also largely responsible for creating the phenomenon of the modern stage musical as we know it.
Mackintosh’s latest success is bringing Mary Poppins to the UAE for a 30-show run, beginning today at Dubai Opera.
“I always say the greatest producer is fate – and there was a great deal of fate,” says 70-year-old Mackintosh, a self-described “old grisly of theatre”.
After more than a decade of financial failures, things changed in 1981 with Cats, the first of two musicals he staged with Andrew Lloyd Webber. It ran uninterrupted on Broadway for a then-unprecedented 18 years.
“Both in England and America, there weren’t musicals churning out in the 1970s – in fact, a third of Broadway theatres were shut,” says Mackintosh, speaking from Malta.
“There are Andrew and I in our early 30s – we were at our peak. We’d all learnt our trade in our 20s, and for the next 20 years we were sort of…”. He trails off. Untouchable?
“Well, we managed to do hit after hit after hit, and consequently what that did is revive American musical theatre as an industry,” he says. “The shows were not only a success, but they spawned a lot of the theatres that were being closed down to be redone to have better stages to accommodate these big shows we’d done.
“Plus, a lot of other people suddenly went: ‘Oh you can make a lot of money out of the theatre’.”
His second collaboration with Lloyd Webber was The Phantom of the Opera, which surpassed Cats as Broadway’s longest-running’s show – it will celebrate 30 continuous years in January.
Globally, it has played to 130 million people, reportedly grossing US$5.6 billion (Dh20bn) – more, Mackintosh notes, than any movie.
“Indeed, we were single-handedly responsible for the likes of Disney, Warner Brothers and all these big film companies suddenly paying attention to the theatre,” says Mackintosh.
“It was something that nobody ever bothered with before us.”
It was Disney with whom Mackintosh worked to bring Mary Poppins to the stage in 2004, following a decade-long process negotiating rights to use the movie’s famous songs.
Love of the source material fed his patience – Mackintosh recalls not just falling in love with the 1964 film, but devouring all the Poppins books, written by P L Travers, while a teenager.
By then he had set his sights on a career in theatre, after being taken backstage at a production of Julian Slade’s Salad Days at the age of 8 – which years later became one of the first shows Mackintosh himself produced.
“I was a little boy who dreamt maybe I might have a tour of England and maybe a show in the West End one day,” he says. “It never occurred to me that I might have shows in virtually every city in the world – I pinch myself.”
Mackintosh can share this kind of sentiment without a grain of hubris.
He says he still regularly takes public transport in the same breath as telling me he holidays at every opportunity.
His blockbusters continue to travel the world, playing on more stages now than in even the 1980s. Yet he refuses to sit back and simply watch his bank balance swell with the fruits of former glories – his next big project will bring runaway Broadway smash Hamilton to the West End.
Mackintosh comes across as a workaholic and yet also a completely satisfied human being – the clear result of being both creatively and materially fulfilled by his life’s work.
“No, I can’t retire – I’d love to have even more holidays than I do, but there’s so many shows to do,” he says. “I’m not in love with show business, I’m in love with creating musicals.
“I’m just very proud and very lucky that things I’ve loved doing have ended up being so successful and continue to be so.
“I’m sure now that a lot of my shows will outlive me and be done long after I’m dead and forgotten.”
• Mary Poppins is at Dubai Opera until May 25; tickets start from Dh250. For more information, visit www.dubaiopera.com